A Catholic bookworm’s guide to March Madness
Guess what this coming weekend brings? That’s right, Selection Sunday! If you don’t know or care what Selection Sunday is, we are undaunted, because we work at America Media, where sports is a dirty word and there are more fans of Quidditch than of baseball, football and basketball combined. (Our company kickball team won a single game in its inaugural season…and that by forfeit.) But for the uninitiated, Selection Sunday is the day when N.C.A.A. Division I basketball programs find out where they are seeded—or if they are seeded at all—in the N.C.A.A. championship tournament, more famously known as “March Madness,” which begins on March 16 this year.
All told, over 700 million viewers took in a March Madness game in 2022, and that’s just counting the men’s games (and not counting those in actual attendance). You might also have noticed some illegal gambling in your office these days (shocked, shocked!), part of $2.5 billion in informal wagers on the tournament—and a drop in the bucket compared to the $6.5 billion gambled legally in the new free-for-all that is the American gaming industry.
I won America’s March Madness pool last year, mostly because I was one of the few Catholics not sucker enough to put my hopes on Gonzaga.
And yes, I won America’s March Madness pool last year, mostly because I was one of the few Catholics not sucker enough to put my hopes on Gonzaga.
Over the years, America has covered college basketball a lot better than other sports, in part because Catholic schools (and Jesuit schools in particular) have always played a prominent role in the sport. Admittedly, when the University of San Francisco Dons (“the greatest sports story of the century”) won two national championships in 1955-56 with future N.B.A. Hall of Famers Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, America paid them zero attention—but things have gotten better in recent years, particularly in the book reviews.
In her 2021 review of John Gasaway’s Miracles on the Hardwood: The Hope-and-a-Prayer Story of a Winning Tradition in Catholic College Basketball, Jenny Shank noted that “N.C.A.A. hoops fans often link Catholic colleges with basketball excellence.” Indeed, she quotes Gasaway to that effect: “If there were no game of basketball, Catholic colleges and universities would have been deprived of one of their defining characteristics in the public imagination.” From USF to Georgetown to Loyola Marymount to Dayton to Marquette to Loyola Chicago to Villanova (and I guess now Gonzaga, harrumph), she notes, men’s college basketball has always been an arena in which Catholic schools played an outsized role.
Immaculata University won the first three women’s basketball championships, while Notre Dame’s women’s team has appeared in five title games since 2011, winning the national championship in 2018.
When the Catholic Book Club selected Miracles on the Hardwood as one of its selections for Spring 2022 (along with legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr.’s memoir I Came as a Shadow, reviewed in America in 2021 by Bill McGarvey), CBC moderator Kevin Spinale, S.J., noted that many of the social issues Americans faced during the 20th century were reflected in the struggles and victories of Catholic collegiate basketball. Corruption in East Coast cities was reflected in point-shaving scandals at Seton Hall, the University of Dayton and at St. Joseph University; the increasing urbanization of the country was reflected in the dominance of urban Catholic schools in a “prairie versus parish” dynamic; and, of course, Catholic schools played a dramatic public role in racial integration—the 1955 USF Dons featured five Black players on their roster, and the 1962 Loyola Chicago team was the first team in Division I to play five Black players at one time in a game. Sarah Vincent also wrote in America about the famed “Game of Change,” in which Mississippi State defied a state government order prohibiting them from playing racially integrated teams to face off against Loyola Chicago in the national tournament.
America has also provided some analyses of recent tournaments by Vincent Strand, S.J., including a 2021 guide to the Jesuit schools in March Madness and a 2019 appreciation of the tournament. Sarah Vincent covered the miraculous run of St. Peter’s University in last year’s tournament, and also offered a recent review of the memoir of Loyola Chicago men’s basketball chaplain Sister Jean, “everyone’s favorite courtside nun.” Giving readers a break from coverage of Jesuit schools, the theologian Ilia Delio wrote last year about the Villanova Wildcats (the only Catholic school to win a men’s championship in decades, truth be told), “a team inspired by St. Augustine.” And in 2019, Ashley McKinless argued that the University of Virginia’s championship was “the perfect Easter redemption story.”
Of course, it’s not just about the men's teams: As Tom Deignan noted in a 2019 America article about the history of Catholic sports, in the early 1970s, Philadelphia’s Immaculata University won the first three de facto national women’s basketball championships, while the University of Notre Dame’s women’s team has appeared in five title games since 2011, winning the national championship in 2018. The story of Immaculata’s “Mighty Macs” was detailed in a 2011 film of the same name, reviewed in America by Kerry Weber. Even more impressive than Immaculata’s three national championships, Weber noted, are the accomplishments of some of the real-life alumnae of those squads:
The real women included Marianne Crawford Stanley, who guided Old Dominion to three national titles and became a coach in the W.N.B.A.; Denise Conway Crawford, who was honored for her contributions as a youth basketball coach; Judy Marra Martelli, who raised over $5 million for cancer research through an organization called Coaches vs. Cancer; Rene Muth Portland, who coached the Penn State women’s basketball team for 27 years; and Teresa Shank Grentz, who coached at Rutgers University and at the University of Illinois for 13 years before returning to Immaculata, where she now holds the title of vice president for university advancement.
Will this year’s men’s and women’s tournaments add more inspiring stories to this impressive oeuvre? I had high hopes for my own alma mater, Loyola Marymount, which took down both Gonzaga and St. Mary’s in regular-season play, but the men’s team lost over the weekend in their conference tournament to BYU. Still, the Loyola Marymount Lions will forever possess the most thrilling March Madness story: That of Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble and the run-and-gun heroes of the 1990 tournament.
This year? Don’t sleep on Marquette.
Loyola Marymount will forever possess the most thrilling March Madness story: That of Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble and the run-and-gun heroes of the 1990 tournament.
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James T. Keane